Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Terrence Malick

I admire the creativity of Terrence Malick and find his theological concerns fascinating, but his films are not always easy to admire.

In his most recent movie, To the Wonder, goes even further than in his luminous The Tree of Life, going beyond conventional plot structure, character development, and dialogue with visuals and music to create a mood that can be beautiful at times, confusing at others, as when the camera jumps erratically from one character or scene to another.

It must have been hard for Ben Affleck, with so little to say, to perform his nameless role as an American who moves from Paris and, too briefly, to Mont St.-Michel and then to the American heartland (Oklahoma), where he brings his French lover. Unfortunately, her narrative in French is hard to follow in the pale little subtitles that are provided.

She mentions "the love that loves us" (God) and years to return to the sacraments when she encounters a priest, who is unhappy and searching for meaning; so we again have, as in the last film, the interesting overlay of Catholicism with Protestant America--clearly a fascination for the filmmaker. Richard Brody (the New Yorker blog 4-17-13) offers a fuller appreciation of this topic, including Malick's critique of religion as doctrine and the light that floods the movie, stemming from the place of wonder, the Catholic shrine of Mont St.-Michel that gives the film its title.

Roger Ebert, in his final movie review, praised Malick's search for beauty everywhere and his interest in isolating souls in need. His swirling dances, wheatfields, water and other symbols give the scenes a cosmic perspective, as if life is seen from eternity; and it is up to the viewer to piece all this imagery and silence together.

Even without the subtitles, you can tell that the big themes are here: faith, love, God, happiness, meaning...and beauty; and Malick gives us at times a feast of light and sound. Yet his effort fails to be coherent and interesting enough for me, at least, to avoid tedium.

As the priest asks God, "how long will you hide yourself?" part of  me applauds a filmmaker daring enough to deal with religious issues in a serious way while the other part of me wants to ask, "how long will this movie go on?"

I am sorry to say, with Ebert, that if The Tree of Life was awesome, this latest experiment is puzzling and pretentious.

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